The 2001 NFL season went very differently for QB Drew Bledsoe of the New England Patriots than he certainly could have anticipated going into it. Following eight years with the Patriots, he had received a ten-year, $103 million contract extension that was the richest in league history at the time and seemed to secure his future in New England. But after sustaining a hit by LB Mo Lewis of the Jets two weeks into the season that resulted in a chest injury, he was replaced by unheralded backup QB Tom Brady, who performed well enough that the veteran was unable to regain the starting job once he was cleared to return to action.
Bledsoe handled the demotion with characteristic class and, when Brady was injured during the AFC title game against the Steelers, he stepped in to rally the team to victory. But it was Brady going all the way in the stunning Super Bowl win over the Rams and it was clear that the veteran’s days with the Patriots were numbered. On April 21, 2002 speculation as to where the 30-year-old Bledsoe would play next was ended when he was dealt to the Buffalo Bills for a conditional first-round draft choice in 2003.
Bledsoe’s career started with great promise when he was taken by New England as the first overall pick of the 1993 NFL draft out of Washington State. At 6’5” and 233 pounds, he had ideal size and passing ability, although limited mobility as a traditional pocket quarterback. He gained the starting job as a rookie and in his second year led the league in pass attempts (691), completions (400), yards (4555), and, more unfortunately, interceptions (27). In one game against the Vikings, he set NFL records with 70 passes and 45 completions. For his efforts, he was named to the Pro Bowl and the team’s record, under the direction of Head Coach Bill Parcells, improved to 10-6, its best in eight seasons.
Bledsoe again led the NFL in pass attempts in 1995 (636) but otherwise had a lesser year. However, the Patriots reached the Super Bowl in ’96 as Bledsoe led the league in attempts (623) and completions (373) while throwing for 4086 yards and 27 touchdowns. He was selected once more to the Pro Bowl and, while he had a rough Super Bowl performance in a loss to the Packers, he and the team appeared to be heading in the right direction.
Parcells departed the club following the AFC Championship season and was replaced by Pete Carroll. While the Patriots made it to the postseason in 1997 and ’98, they didn’t advance any farther than the Divisional playoff round and Bledsoe took criticism for tossing ill-timed interceptions and not stepping up in pressure situations. The departure of star RB Curtis Martin to the Jets in 1998 added further to the demands on the quarterback. The Patriots collapsed during the second half of the 1999 season, when they went 2-6 to conclude with an 8-8 record. Bledsoe had an especially difficult time, tossing 17 interceptions in that eight-game stretch to just six TD passes and enduring 33 sacks.
Bill Belichick was the new head coach during a 5-11 rebuilding season in 2000. While Bledsoe displayed a great deal of toughness and heart, he also took a tremendous beating along the way. He threw for only 17 touchdowns and was sacked 45 times. Still, the club gave him the big contract in the offseason, believing that with a better line and more effective playmakers around him, he could regain his form.
Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills were coming off a 3-13 year in 2001 with Rob Johnson and Alex Van Pelt at quarterback. Johnson had been a disappointment as a starting quarterback since being obtained from Jacksonville in 1998 and was let go while Van Pelt was nothing more than a capable backup. With Bledsoe behind center, the Bills improved to 8-8 in ’02, although they faltered down the stretch after getting off to a 5-3 start.
Bledsoe had a big year, completing a career-high 61.5 percent of his passes for 4359 yards with 24 touchdowns against 15 interceptions. Both starting wide receivers went over a thousand yards with a rejuvenated Eric Moulds catching 100 passes for 1292 yards and 10 TDs and Peerless Price adding 94 catches for 1252 yards and 9 scores. Bledsoe and Moulds were chosen to the Pro Bowl, the first selection for the ten-year quarterback in five seasons.
Things did not go as well for the team or its quarterback in 2003, who suffered through a dreadful season. The loss of Price to free agency and then Moulds to injury did not help matters. Bledsoe’s passing yardage total dipped to 2860 and his touchdown throws to 11, with a passer rating of 73.0, and he was sacked 49 times. Buffalo dropped to 6-10.
The Bills finished strong in 2004 to end up with a 9-7 record, helped greatly on offense by the performance of RB Willis McGahee. Bledsoe threw for 2932 yards and 20 touchdowns but was released following the season to make way for 2004 first draft choice J.P. Losman to take over as the starting quarterback.
Bledsoe moved on to Dallas, where he was reunited with Head Coach Bill Parcells and played his final two NFL seasons. In all, he passed for 44,611 yards and 251 touchdowns, with 206 interceptions and 467 sacks. Of those totals, 10,151 yards, 55 TDs, 43 pickoffs, and 140 sacks came with the Bills.
The Patriots continued to prosper with Tom Brady at quarterback during the same time period that Bledsoe was in Buffalo, winning the Super Bowl following the 2003 and ’04 seasons. Bledsoe’s earlier contributions to the club were not forgotten, however, as he was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2011.
As a footnote, the 2003 first draft choice that the Patriots received from Buffalo for Bledsoe was in turn sent on to the Chicago Bears, who used to take DE Michael Haynes from Penn State. New England, moving up a spot as a result of trading picks, took DT Ty Warren out of Texas A & M.